SEC Football Race Difficult To Figure

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the 2002 Southeastern Conference football season.

Sitting in the press box high above Shields-Watkins Field at Neyland Stadium, I thought this night was going to be a breeze. Tennessee had just scored to take a 17-3 lead over Arkansas early in the fourth quarter. Arkansas had not seriously threatened to score a touchdown all week.

Making deadline on this one would be no problem. That was only fair after I had to deal with an 8 o'clock kickoff and three overtimes a week earlier. But quicker than you can say "Matt Jones," everything changed.

Jones, Arkansas' slick sophomore quarterback, led a 60-yard touchdown drive to make it 17-10. After a Tennessee punt, Arkansas was at its own eight with 3:45 left in the game. I was already writing my story when it happened. Jones, who will never be mistaken for a passer, found flanker Richard Smith running open. The Vols had blown the coverage and Smith was gone for a 92-yard touchdown, the longest touchdown pass in Arkansas history.

Finally, after six overtimes, Tennessee won 41-38. Arkansas could have won it, maybe even should have, in overtime. Luckless Brennan O'Donohoe missed a 38-yard field goal try that would have ended it in the third overtime. It was his third miss of the night, a nightmare that will probably stay with him for a long time. A Tennessee field goal somehow got through the uprights despite being hit by an Arkansas defender. Tennessee finally ended it on a 25-yard pass from Casey Clausen to tight end Jason Witten, and the celebration, such as it was, could begin.

The Vols weren't sure what to make of their narrow escape from the Razorbacks. After all, it was the same Arkansas team that had been manhandled 30-12 by Alabama the week before. And I'm not sure what to make of it, either. We'll know a little more after Arkansas' trip to Auburn on Saturday.

Truth is, I'm not sure what to make of much anything that is happening in the Southeastern Conference so far this season. I do feel safe in saying the national champion will not come from the SEC. Outside of hapless Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, any SEC team can beat any other SEC team. There are going to be wild swings from week to week. I wrote in this space last week that Ole Miss didn't have enough defense to beat Florida or to be a serious factor in the SEC West race. Presto! The Rebels went out and dominated Florida in the second half, knocking former Heisman Trophy candidate Rex Grossman all over the place. It was a strange, strange sight to see the Rebels content to run the ball and punt because they knew Florida couldn't score.

It was an amazing turnaround for a team that had given up 80 points in its previous two games, 38 of those in a near-loss to the aforementioned Vanderbilt. Has Ole Miss suddenly become a dominant defensive team? I don't think so.

I also wrote in this space last week that I thought Alabama would take care of Georgia, that the Bulldogs were overrated and had been all season. Presto! Georgia goes to Tuscaloosa and wins for the first time ever, dominating most of the game before having to win it on a field goal in the last minute. Maybe I'm stubborn, but I'm still not convinced. Was it about Georgia being better than a lot of us thought or Alabama not being as good as advertised? I'd say it's somewhere in between. I still don't think Georgia is a top 10 team. I have never thought Alabama was.

Georgia is certainly exceptionally talented, especially at wide receiver. But it is also the same team that should have lost to South Carolina, could have lost to Clemson and even struggled to score at times against New Mexico State. Alabama's offensive and defensive lines had grown to near legendary status in the victory over Arkansas. Maybe we all should have remembered that Middle Tennessee State, which has yet to win a game, romped up and down the field on the Tide. Alabama's secondary was seriously tested for the first time this season Saturday. It didn't make a very good grade.

We still don't know much about LSU, which hasn't played a decent team since its 24-8 loss to Virginia Tech and will desperately miss tailback LaBrandon Toefield. We don't know for sure about Auburn, which hasn't played a decent team since its 24-17 loss to USC. Syracuse, which took Auburn to three overtimes, was overwhelmed 48-24 by Pittsburgh at home on Saturday.

We also don't know about Tennessee or Arkansas. The Vols have a hard time running the ball and the Razorbacks have a hard time throwing it. Kentucky is likely to run head-on into reality after a 4-1 start, South Carolina is solid but not great and Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are awful. Florida? Now there's a real mystery. The Gators return home for back-to-back games against LSU and Auburn at Florida Field. Should they win them both, they'll be back on track and in line for the championship game. If they lose one of them, the grumbling will grow louder. If they lose them both? I wouldn't want to be first-year head coach Ron Zook.

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